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Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret Morning News
A conference attendee walks past artwork.

LAYTON — Success in this case might seem strange to some. When the county built the Davis Conference Center in Layton last year, they knew it would never really make money — they just hoped it would break even.

One year and 900 conferences later, the conference center is progressing as county officials hoped it would for the first year, said Kent Sulser, manager of economic development for Davis County. Instead of making money for the county through fees from the various business conferences, the center is working as an economic engine for the area, bringing in conference attendees who will spend money at local hotels, restaurants and stores.

"We've got a product that truly is working," Sulser said.

The Davis Conference Center and attached Hilton Garden Inn are located in the heart of Layton within walking distance of the Layton Hills Mall, eight hotels, and 12 major restaurants along the popular "restaurant row." With 32,000 square feet, 147 hotel rooms, and the ability to host up to 1,000 people, the conference center is well placed to caters to the smaller conventions the Salt Lake convention centers often pass up, said Scott Lunt, who has managed both the conference center and hotel since 2003.

The addition of the conference center to Davis County adds an element to local commerce that had previously been missing — a venue for large gatherings in the community. Building a space to meet and bringing in more business opportunities were some of the goals the county originally considered when deciding whether to build the conference center, Sulser said.

"One of our concerns is making sure we have business, commercial growth," he said.

Although there aren't any black-and-white numbers that can show a direct relationship between the new conference center and the local economy, the increase in revenue from local taxes shows increased spending at restaurants and hotels, said Barbara Riddle from the Davis Area Convention and Visitors Bureau.

To see some of the impact the center has had in the community, Riddle looks at revenue from taxes placed on restaurants and hotel rooms, or the transient room tax. For 2005, the county projected an increase of 8.5 percent in the transient room tax and a 5.9 percent increase for the restaurant tax. In 2006 it expects a 7.7 percent increase in tourism overall for the county.

"You have to think in large part that it is because of more people coming into the county," Riddle said.

The convention center is one of the reasons those people are coming into the county and spending money shopping, eating at restaurants and staying in hotels, she said.

Business at the center is going so well, some conventions are already being turned away because there isn't enough space to accommodate them all. Between January and September 2005, the Davis Area Convention and Visitors Bureau booked 30 groups at the conference center, with a total of $3.3 million in business, Riddle said. Those numbers don't include the conventions and parties the conference center has booked on its own, so the number of groups using the conference center is actually much higher.

The visitors bureau booked an additional 49 groups that will have conventions from the end of September 2005 through September 2007, which should have more than a $5.5 million economic impact. Those conferences will bring in about 12,500 conference attendees who will use more than 12,000 hotel rooms in Davis County.

Those conference attendees will end up spending money while they are here, which will create more opportunities for local businesses.

"It's creating jobs, it's creating commerce," said Dannie McConkie, Davis County commissioner.

McConkie said the county commissioners are pleased with the impact the conference center has had on the local economy so far.

Despite some early opposition the project received, Sulser said he hasn't heard any complaints about the conference center since it was built.

"I think we're winning them over," Sulser said.

Some of the early critics were concerned about the high cost of the conference center at $10 million. Although tax money was used to fund construction of the conference center, those tax dollars came through the transient room tax. Money from that tax can only be used for tourism-related projects, Sulser said, and in time it will help create more transient room tax revenue because more people will be spending the night at local hotels.

Opposition also came from other hotels that only wanted to have a conference center without an attached hotel because of the added competition it would bring.

Many of those people have since stopped their criticism of the conference center, Sulser said. That may be because the center has increased the business in the surrounding area and hasn't hurt business for the other hotels, Lunt added. In fact, October had the highest recorded hotel occupancy rate for the whole area.

The conference center is also attracting new business to the area, including the restaurant and pub Roosters. Owner Kym Buttschardt said the conference center was one of the deciding factors for her to expand her popular Ogden restaurant to a location just south of the conference center.

"It's a hot location," she said.

She said the area is a great place for her restaurant to be so near the conference center and benefit from the attendees looking for somewhere close by to eat after a day of meetings.

"We have had some amazing days, especially on days when the conference center has big events," Buttschardt said.

Big events at the center mean quite a lot for local retailers since the bigger conventions can bring in almost 1,000 people to the area. Conferences generally range in size from 400 to 500 attendees, but Lunt said they've hosted events for as few as 10 people to more than 800.

For larger groups, the 12,500-square-foot ballroom is spacious enough for 1,000 guests to sit down for a banquet, but it can also be broken down into eight smaller meeting rooms for the breakout sessions of a convention. Each of those rooms is a "smart room" that automatically adjusts the room temperature, sound and equipment in the room.

"It's pretty technologically savvy," Lunt said.

The building features other state-of-the-art technologies like LCD monitors outside each meeting room, wired and wireless Internet access, and two weather towers in front of the building that forecast the next day's weather with fiber-optic lighting.

The weather towers form the theme for the center, which houses a full-service weather station on top of the building. Each of the rooms in the center sports a weather-related name, with such rooms as the Zephyr Terrace, the Meridian ballroom and the Sky lobby. That theme is complemented by the natural feel of the building interior, the red sandstone pillars in the hallways and warm colors used in the decoration.

Bridging that natural feeling inside the conference center with the surrounding community is one of the next steps the center would like to take. Lunt said he is currently discussing the creation of a campus atmosphere for the center and surrounding businesses. Park benches and special lighting would follow a "yellow-brick road" style walking path between the center, the mall, hotels and restaurants.

It would, however, take a lot of money to create, Lunt said. He hopes to involve the local community in the process and raise money through various efforts like private funding and possibly through grants.

County officials are also looking at other improvements to the center that might be more immediate, especially expanding the building to include an exhibition hall that would attract trade shows and bring in even more people, Sulser said. One of the studies currently under way is looking at the costs and benefits of expansion.

Although it would cost more money to expand, the additional business an exhibition center would bring in would create even more growth for the local economy.

"What's good for one benefits all," Sulser said. "There's some real meaning in that."

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